III: Black Renaissance
During my sophomore year at Lincoln, I contributed to the college paper, took part in intra-mural track, and read my poems with the Glee Club at Princeton University.
That year, too, the college quartette and some of our students were invited to attend a Y.M.C.A. conference at Franklin and Marshall College, at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and I was asked to read my poetry. It was my first interracial conference. Since then, I’ve discovered that an awful lot of hooey revolves around interracial conferences in this country. In Europe people of all races meet and eat and drink and talk and dance and do whatever they are meeting to do without self-consciousness. But here, when there are Negroes and whites present together, there is often an amazing amount of gushing, of blundering, of commiserating, of talking pro and con, of theorizing and excusing, and somebody is almost sure to bring up the question of intermarriage, and then everyone looks intense, interested, and apprehensive.
There is always the matter of where the Negroes are to sleep, too, and where they are to eat. When one has been in Europe or in Mexico where these things never come up, and one can sleep or eat anywhere, no matter what one’s complexion, such considerations seem doubly stupid.
Once at the Hill School, a fashionable boys’ preparatory school in Pennsylvania, Alain Locke and I were asked to appear on a morning program devoted to Negro literature. Afterwards we were invited to luncheon. Later I learned that the whole seating arrangement of the boys’ dining hall had been disturbed, a special table allotted to us, and the boys asked to volunteer as to who would be willing to sit beside a Negro! Such a procedure seemed to me absolutely amazing—especially in the light of Dr. Locke’s having represented the United States as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, his wide travel background, and his important contributions to American life.
“Who will volunteer to sit beside a Negro?”
At Franklin and Marshall, however, the students were less self-consciously cordial to their guests from Lincoln, hospitably sharing dormitory space with them and seats in the dining hall. And I don’t believe we discussed intermarriage. But we did talk about the sociological aspects of the Negro problem, and about the hard times Negro students had finding jobs, and about the Jim Crow Y.M.C.A. system in America, and prayer, and the church, as well as a great many other problems that concern all Christian students as a whole. And the Lincoln University Quartette sang spirituals.
On the last day of the conference, when they were drawing up resolutions, it seemed to me there might as well be one really practical resolution regarding Negroes somewhere on the list. (I have always been an opponent of the general and the vague.) So since we were meeting on the campus of Franklin and Marshall, and since that college seemed to have an unwritten rule barring Negro students from attendance, and since there were a number of young Negroes graduating every year from high schools in Lancaster, who had to go away to more distant cities to further their education, I thought it would be fitting and proper for us, as a student conference, to see if we could get at the root of that matter right there on the campus where we were in session—as to why Negro citizens could not attend that college.
A resolution of such a nature involving a definite task, but of local scope, it seemed to me, would have an immediate practical value, and give the Franklin and Marshall students something concrete to do.
But I could get no action on such a resolution at all! Everybody shied away. And the white director of our conference—an adult professional Young Men’s Christian Association leader—said regarding this problem in his final talk to the assembled delegates: “There are some things in this world we must leave to Jesus, friends. Let us pray!”
So they prayed. And the conference ended.